Backstory: Philly's cheesesteak wars
Travel the world and you'll find many a Philly cheesesteak. But you won't find one here. In Philly, it's a Larry's cheesesteak, or a Dan's, or a Steve's, each offering a sandwich with it's characteristic crumbliness of filling, chewiness of roll, and attitude. Here, fans carry the banner for their favorite cheesesteak - debating vigorously the perfect cheese consistency, recruiting converts to a softer roll, chauffeuring friends over two highways and a toll bridge, even, to proffer true cheesesteak perfection.Skip to next paragraph
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Many of them head to 9th and Wharton Streets at Passyunk in South Philly - a quirky, multipoint corner anchored by two of the city's premier eateries: Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks. Neither considers the other a competitor. Of course not.
Even in winter, the dining on this corner is al fresco. The tables have fried onion drippings on them. The airspace is a-swirl with straw wrappers. A backfiring 4x4 decorated with Flyers decals provides the background music.
Here, haute cuisine is a $7 long roll oozing chopped beef, Cheez Whiz, and fried onions, hold the brotherly love.
Because the lines for service can extend around the block, speedy ordering is everything on this corner. Veterans and their imitators bring a certain swagger to the window, barking in a code which describes number of sandwiches desired, plus extras: "whiz" for "with Cheez Whiz," "wit," for "with onions."
It's a brisk-moving litany when it works: "Two wit ... One whiz-wit, one Coke ... Three whiz ..."
Rookies, tentative, stand back, study the menu, then exceed the unofficial four-word limit: "Hello, may I please have one whiz. No, wait - wit. No. Whiz-wit ... wait." On a good day, there might be some coaching from the window. But if there's a line, well, legend has it you'll be sent to the rear to practice your ordering skills - no kidding - like a mortified third grader who misspelled "cat."
For Kathy Smith, night manager at Pat's King of Steaks, the line is both her reason for being and the bane of her existence. She's serving as many as 200 "breads" an hour, so she prefers customers to go somewhere else to fumble for their money.
"I'm not here to be nice to you. My whole goal is to take care of the guy behind you," she says during a break. "Sometimes I'm afraid to come outside, I've been so rude to people."
To Ms. Smith, who grew up half a block away, anyone not from the neighborhood is a tourist, and she's not a fan. "You can tell by the way they're eating," she says, nodding toward the groups of diners unknowingly getting it wrong. "South Philly wouldn't be sitting and eating. South Philly would be standing and talking to each other and eating." And to Smith, at least, they'd be standing and eating and talking to each other at Pat's.
Smith, whose father supported his wife and three children working at the stand, has worked here herself since 1984. Her staff, mostly men, earn between $9 and $13 an hour - good for someone who hasn't finished high school. It is still run by the Olivieri family, who opened it in 1930.